The Romanesque Fonts of Northern Europe and Scandinavia

The Romanesque Fonts of Northern Europe and Scandinavia

The Romanesque Fonts of Northern Europe and Scandinavia

The Romanesque Fonts of Northern Europe and Scandinavia

Synopsis

More than four thousand Romanesque fonts survive today across northern Europe and Scandinavia. The majority are decorated with a wide variety of ornament, including a significant number with narrative sculpture from the Bible and the lives of saints, and the symbolic nature of the decoration leads directly to the heart of baptism, the sacrament of initiation into the Christian Church. This title looks at the baptismal vessel and its iconography, it is based on the author's personal examination of more than a thousand fonts, underpinned by access to material from Danish, Swedish, German and English sources.

Excerpt

By Professor George Zarnecki cbe, fba, fsa

In his recent book, Churches and Churchmen in Medieval Europe (1999) Professor Christopher Brooke wrote: ‘In the Early Church when the baptised were mostly adults, it was common to have a long preparation in Lent and a great baptism of the catechumens at Eastertide. But as it became more and more common to baptise babies – and as the notion developed that if the babies died unbaptised they could not go to Heaven – the practice of individual baptism of quite small babies grew common’ (p. 32).

As a result, by the end of the eleventh century, when Romanesque art first appeared, and by the twelfth when it flourished, every parish church had a font and their total number in Europe must have been enormous. For example, in the county of Hereford on the Welsh border, there are still over one hundred Romanesque fonts preserved, admittedly most of them simple stone tubs, without or with only modest decoration. However, increasing prosperity in Europe in the twelfth century was accompanied by the blossoming of the arts in all their forms and baptismal fonts were often covered in lavish decoration of a high quality, at times producing masterpieces in form and iconography.

Romanesque art is, above all, religious art and the sacrament of baptism, being second only to the Eucharist in liturgical importance, is the first in which a Christian takes part. Because of this, almost all the decoration found on fonts is linked to the underlying meaning of the rite, whether directly in the portrayals of relevant stories from the Bible and the lives of saints, or indirectly in the symbolism of the bestiary and of formal motifs such as the vine, the palmette and the fleur-de-lis. Even the geometric ornament contained at times a symbolic meaning. At the lowest level, the illiterate village craftsmen resorted to a modest vocabulary of enrichment, such as the incised wavy line, the chevron and the rope.

Messages urging the faithful to renounce their sins and warning them of the punishment awaiting them in hell were depicted in vivid forms. the struggle for the human soul between the forces of Good and Evil was a frequent theme of font iconography. As fonts were prominently positioned in the churches and were an object of veneration and respect, they were particularly suitable for transmitting moral lessons through images which could be understood even by the illiterate.

So far the only book dealing with Romanesque fonts in Europe and Scandinavia is Georg Pudelko’s Romanische Taufsteine (Berlin, 1932). This is an invaluable work but is long out of print and is not detailed enough. in England Francis Bond’s Fonts and Font Covers (1908) is useful as a catalogue but has many shortcomings. While there are many books and articles on individual fonts and their groups, the subject has been waiting for a new, comprehensive study.

Mr Drake describes himself as an amateur in art history. First a professional soldier, then a senior manager in industry but always with medieval art in its widest sense as a leisure pursuit, he was (in his own words) ‘smitten with the Romanesque’. in 1989, within a month of his retirement from business, he enrolled for an ma in Art History and Theory at the University of Essex, where his dissertation was on ‘Tournai Marble Fonts of the . . .

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